A lesson I learned over 30 years ago still rings true today. We need to belong. We need a tribe. We need others to help us get through the hard things in life. We were not meant to struggle alone.
High School is hard. Belonging to a tribe helps us to navigate through, not only the crowded corridors of the institution, but also new relationships, emerging complex feelings, social rules and expectations…all the while carving out the unique space where we fit in the universe.
Because my family moved so often, I attended three different high schools. During a life period when adolescents form and bond with the peers with whom they grew up; I was “the new kid” at three different schools.
The hunger for belonging often chewed away at my insides while I, the perpetual nomad, searched each new desert for a tribe to take me in. I learned to be adaptable, flexible and even chameleon-like as I took on the characteristics of my newly found clique. Because I wanted to belong.
My freshman year, I attended a huge high school on the west bank in New Orleans. I felt like a very small cog within a very large wheel. Moreover, it was an all girls school. Dont let that “sugar and spice” stuff into your brain because these girls were tough. I saw more fights, than you can imagine between the fairer sex…including one where two girls, who were fighting over a boy, stabbed each other. That year I pretty much kept a low profile with a few like-minded friends.
The next year we moved across the lake and I attended Mandeville High school. Within that culture, there was a diversity of class, race, sex and sports. Many sub-cultures existed, but the main tribes were labeled jocks versus freaks. Jocks included the rich, the athletes, the cheerleaders and others who orbited that heaven. Freaks were those who did not belong to the Jocks universe.
I was a freak.
But it was just as cool, and perhaps cooler to be a freak because of the warmth and acceptance I found in a group that wasn’t trying to impress others with their pedigrees or their athletic prowess. Despite the disparaging title that we proudly wore like a badge of civil disobedience, our group was very diverse in both creativity and activity. Freaks ran the newspaper (I was the poetry editor). Freaks hung out on the lakefront every Friday and Saturday night. Freaks helped each other out. There was no king…no hierarchy…we just…were.
We did tend to rage against the machine but we did so not by aggression but by our collective independence (aka rule challenging). The jocks ignored us and we ignored them. It was a peaceful co-existence. The two years I spent at that school were happy ones, made easier with the support of my tribe.
I also remember my first tribe at DHR. As a child abuse investigator, I was often faced with difficult, sometimes near impossible situations that challenged my belief in the goodness of the human race. I came in contact with so much ugliness as a sexual abuse investigator, that everything looked suspicious. The rigidity of the rules and the pace at which I was expected to perform weighed heavily on me. It often felt like I was pushing with all of my might against a large cement block and never making progress. More than once I considered leaving what I thought of as my life’s calling.
The Can program ( child abuse and neglect), as a whole, was made up of dedicated individuals experiencing, in varying degrees, what I experienced. The work was hard…on our bodies, our minds, even our souls.
In the first county to which I was assigned, like my first high school, I worked alone. It was not uncommon for me to leave the office around 9 or 10 every night. There were other, more experienced workers in my county but no one reached out. I told myself that reaching out to them would define me as weak, so I kept to myself. Dedication and determination kept me going, as I felt small bits of me slipping away.
After a few years, I transfered to a large urban office, but remained in Investigations. The office had multiple CAN workers in an even faster paced environment. The difference was that this group had somehow realized they could not go on indefinitely as lone soldiers in the war on child abuse. So they banded together and brought me into their circle. We supported each other: propping up the ones who were limping along, pitching in when someone had 3 things to accomplish at once ( which did happen) and celebrating even the smallest win. The difference in my ability to handle adversity and bounce back was amazing. Even the air in our part of the building seemed charged with positive ions. And the relationships I made, all those many years ago remained intact. We have all moved on…to other positions, other cities even other careers…but we remember. We were a tribe.
In the decades since my stint as an investigator, I have watched the complexity of the cases increase exponentially along with the expectations yoked into each worker. The pace has become even faster and the paperwork alone could bury a dedicated heart. Turn over continues to rise throughout the United States as staff choose having a life over a seemingly impossible job. It was a hard decision to leave, but they felt alone in their path.
If you are in this place now, let me encourage you…Find a tribe. If none exist in your office, make a tribe. Reach out to a co-worker. Make a friend. Share the grief, the anger and also the wins. Encourage each other to keep walking the path you know you were meant to walk. Pitch in when they are overwhelmed on a day you are not. Watch as they do the same when you need it. Eat lunch together.
Laugh. Laugh. Laugh.
Talk about the funny cat video you saw on facebook. Ask about their kids. Bring them a piece of your birthday cake. Allow the light of those moments to lighten your physical, mental and emotional load.
You will find that a strong tribe will usually grow. As others see and hear your growing positivity , they will gravitate towards you, offering up their same need of belonging. Let them in. Grow your tribe. One person cannot move a cement block, but multiple hands pushing in unison can.
As I entered my senior year of high school, we moved to another state. Because of the acceptance and belonging I received in my second high school, I knew the secret to success by then, and quickly found my tribe. Again, I made many lasting friendships as I started over because I opened up myself and sought out a group of like minded individuals. After the first month, I was no longer the new kid. I belonged.
You, too can belong…it starts with one person. Find a Tribe.